First came robocalls: those pesky and persistent calls purporting to be from charitable organizations, financial institutions, or customer service representatives that have increased exponentially over the past few years. Now robotexts, messages sent to mobile phones using an autodialer, are also proliferating.
The 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits contact—even via text message—with consumers unless a company has received “prior express consent” to contact the consumer. The problem is that spammers, scammers, and hackers don’t care about such rules and will still call, text, call, and text again. Their goal is usually simple: bad actors will flood phones with fake links or requests for personal information. Most people won’t respond—but all it takes is one visit to an illicit website or one response to an innocent question and malicious software can be downloaded to your device. That software can then compromise your passwords, your login credentials, or other private information.
Lately, hackers have gotten even savvier, sending text messages that claim to be from the United States Postal Service (“Are you missing a package?”), the CDC (“Want your free coronavirus test?”), or popular social media accounts (“Click here to reset your password”). The run-up to the 2020 election has also increased the volume of political texts and calls, some of which are legitimate (campaigns are allowed to use manual dialing to call or text voters) while many are not.
The problem is big—and only getting bigger. Consumer complaints to the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have surged since 2014, and scammers continue to circumvent the rules, routing robocalls and robotexts through different carriers and networks that allow them to change numbers and block their original source. Meanwhile, our phone numbers are everywhere—attached to our social media accounts, offered up to companies we purchase products from—and so more susceptible to compromise.
So what can you do to stem the tide of unwanted robocalls and robotexts, keeping your identity and your data safe?
1.) Sign up for the national Do Not Call Registry—but don’t expect it to work right away.
Once your number has been listed on the Registry for 30 days, you can begin reporting unwanted calls or texts to the Federal Trade Commission. But this is only the first step toward more comprehensive protection, though—not a surefire way to stop all calls and texts.
2.) Block unfamiliar or persistent numbers.
The best way to avoid falling for a robocalls or robotext scam is to not respond. You can, however, use your phone to block numbers that persist in unwanted communication. Many cell phone carriers rely on this method to identify known problem numbers and display that “UNKNOWN NAME” or “Potential spam” message alongside an unwanted call or text.
3) Prevent interruptions with your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” setting.
If robocalls or robotexts keep coming, implement your mobile phone’s “Do Not Disturb” option, which won’t alert you with notifications for incoming calls or texts unless they’re from specific contacts (either Favorites or another group you designate). “Do Not Disturb” also allows you to block communication during certain hours and limit notifications while driving. BONUS: “Do Not Disturb” works great as a productivity booster and attention focuser.
4) Don’t click links, respond to STOP, or otherwise acknowledge receipt of robotexts.
Be careful with suspected robotexts that give you the option to unsubscribe or “respond to STOP” receiving them. Often, doing so only lets hackers know that your number is legitimate and in service, which could actually increase the volume of spam you receive. In addition, DO NOT click ANY links in an unwanted text. These can often lead you to illicit websites that install malicious software on your device to harvest passwords, track behavior, or hack into your contacts. With robocalls, be careful what you say; even automated robocalls can ask a variety of natural-sounding questions like “Can you hear me?” If you answer “Yes,” that voice signature can be used at a later date to authorize fraudulent charges via telephone. BONUS: This advice matches the number-one rule for preventing email-based ransomware: don’t respond, click a link, or open an attachment from an unknown address.
5) Be careful sharing info with apps.
Social media accounts often ask to link your phone number to an application. But if other less frequently used apps ask for such permissions, proceed with caution. The more you share your number, the more likely it is that you’ll be targeted with robocalls or robotexts.